Business of Well-being

Carrots, Sticks or Knowledge: Is Your Wellness Program Making the Right Choice?

Is your organization using carrots or sticks in an effort to improve outcomes in your corporate wellness program? Do you understand what the research shows about offering carrots for outcomes people are already intrinsically motivated to accomplish? Intrinsic motivation is the most powerful, consistent, and reliable form of motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is internally generated energy to achieve a self-determined goal. Intrinsic motivation leads to the most favorable outcomes. When a person is intrinsically motivated and an extrinsic reward is offered (a carrot) intrinsic motivation decreases because the person begins focusing on the extrinsic reward.

This interplay between the carrot offered and intrinsic motivation decreases favorable outcomes.

Let's talk about obesity for a moment. Do you think there is anyone who is obese who wouldn't rather live in a body with a healthy weight? If you do, you've never been obese. The old paradigm of calories in and calories out has been discarded by researchers.

It was wrong and did not consider many factors that influence how our bodies process and decide to store food. Stress increases obesity in several ways. Stress signals the body to store energy in the form of fat. Stress also changes eating habits. Even people who have committed to a desired weight loss goal who become stressed go off their diet (at the rate of 71 percent) and not only do they go off the diet, they consume higher fat and higher calorie foods than they normally would.

When stressed, 67 percent eat foods they usually avoid and 44 percent of people eat foods they usually avoid for health reasons. (APA, Stress in America)21 percent of Americans who report low emotional support said they did not make any lifestyle changes during the past year because they were too stressed to make changes.

For Americans who feel they have emotional support, 10 percent reported they did not make any lifestyle changed during the past year because they were too stressed. (APA, Stress in America, 2014) Forty-two percent of people surveyed said they aren't doing enough to manage their level of stress or are unsure if they are doing enough.

Twenty percent aren't doing anything to manage stress. (APA, Stress in America, 2014)On the flip side, people who are experiencing lower levels of stress consume lower calorie and lower fat foods that are generally considered healthier even when they are not on a diet.

Exercise is also affected by stress. Even people who know exercise reduces their level of stress don't exercise when they feel too stressed. 74 percent of obese individuals do not feel confident in their ability to cope with stress without comfort eating. Adverse childhood experiences greatly increase the risk of obesity. Depending on which study you review, you'll see that between 22-69 percent of individuals battling obesity were abused as children and in a study of individuals who were being interviewed prior to bariatric surgery, 89 percent were abused as children.

Childhood abuse (physical, sexual, or verbal) is not the only factor shared by many obese individuals. Thirty percent of obese individuals report experiencing abuse in their adult relationships. The bottom line is that stress is a significant factor in obesity, diet, and exercise.

Ninety percent of individuals who are overweight know the excess weight is unhealthy and want (intrinsic motivation) to look and feel better. Carrots aren't the answer because they already possess the best possible carrot-intrinsic motivation. They need knowledge, but it's not knowledge about healthy habits they need.

Research shows that we put a great deal of effort into teaching people about healthy dietary choices with little to no effect. That's because we live in bodies that request higher fat and calorie foods when we are stressed. Now let's tie it all together with a pretty bow.

90 percent of people who are obese would like to lose weight which means 90 percent are intrinsically motivated to lose weight. Carrots (incentives offered by others) reduce intrinsic motivation. One significant reason people fail to lose weight through diet and exercise is because of stress.

If your company uses sticks (penalties for not losing weight or meeting dietary or exercise goals) the penalty increases stress because it reduces autonomy) which adds to the problem that is preventing the person from reaching the goal in the first place. Do you still think carrots and sticks are appropriate tools to help you reach your corporate wellness goals?

I'll add that 60 percent of individuals who still smoke cigarettes suffer from anxiety and ask you again if you think you've been well advised to penalize people who smoke? Smokers who suffer from anxiety believe smoking helps them reduce the negative impact of their anxiety.

It probably does because deep breathing reduces anxiety in a dose-dependent manner and smoking mimics deep breathing. The knowledge that will provide the best ROI (return on investment) is knowledge about how to reduce their stress in ways that work in real life. We've been giving lip service to stress management since the 1970's when we told people to think positive but not how.

It was at that same time that people were told to cut down on activities to reduce time-stress but the only activities they could eliminate were ones that helped them by supporting good relationships and activities they enjoyed. Today we know how to teach people to think positive even if their habits of thought are negative.

Today we know how to teach people to easily recognize thoughts that are adding to their stress load and how to use techniques that increase emotional agility to reduce stress. These techniques lead to changes in the way people perceive stress so that their initial perception of new situations and of stressful situations that tend to recur (think of nurses, doctor, first responders, military personnel, teachers, etc.) are less stressful.

Lower stress levels lead to improved moods, which leads to better interpersonal relationships, which leads to further reductions in their stress levels.

Header Photo - Copyright: lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

About the Author

Dr. Jeanine Joy is a game changer focused on delivering evidence-based, experience-informed knowledge and skills she has woven together to create programs that improve physical, mental, and behavior health, and relationships. She is a powerful motivational speaker, trainer, and author who inspires people to achieve more of their potential.

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